Women theorists agree that the literature of women depends on biological, social, psychological facts that govern her existence. In fact, if one is asked to name a single most characteristic feature of women’s writing it can best be provided in the words of Margaret Atwood, written in the context of Canadian Literature but which can be very aptly applied to the literature of women all over the world: it is a literature of survival and victims. The subjugation of women – had been long and suffocating and just as one tenth part of the iceberg is seen floating, while the larger chunk remains invisible, underneath the creative imagination, the dread of the victimised experience still clings. Alka argues that there are four stages in women poets’ journey. From the feminine stage, when they had to use pseudonyms to get published, or the feminist stage, when they needed a platform to dramatise their sufferings, or the female stage, when they declared and acknowledged that they are different and happy being women. Now, they have entered a free stage. This poetry coming straight from heart and genuine feelings is convincing and therefore diverse and profound. Here’s her narrative on the subject, as special feature on International Women’s Day, exclusively for Different Truths.
I don’t mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they are taking me seriously
~ U.A. Fanthrope
Not very long ago expressing his opinion about Charlotte’s literary activities, Robert Southey – ten years before the publication of Jane Eyre – had remarked that literature cannot be the business of a women’s life. Similarly, an old Bishop declared to Virginia Woolf that it was impossible for any woman – past, present or to come to have the genius of Shakespeare. Virginia Woolf in her famous reply imagined in her early feminist writing, A Room of One’s Own, that there was a sister of Shakespeare –Judith – perhaps immensely gifted and as eager to see the wide world as Shakespeare was. But when she ventured outside Stratford-at- Avon, she found herself pregnant, killed herself and now lies buried at some crossroads of London.
Subsequent women theorists agree that the literature of women depends on biological, social, psychological facts that govern her existence. In fact, if one is asked to name a single most characteristic feature of women’s writing it can best be provided in the words of Margaret Atwood, written in the context of Canadian Literature but which can be very aptly applied to the literature of women all over the world: it is a literature of survival and victims. The subjugation of women – had been long and suffocating and just as one tenth part of the iceberg is seen floating, while the larger chunk remains invisible, underneath the creative imagination, the dread of the victimised experience still clings:
I return to the story
of the woman caught in the war
in labour, her thighs tied
together by the enemy
so she could not give birth.
Ancestress: the burning witch,
her mouth covered by leather
to strangle words.
~ Margaret Atwood
It is interesting that any discussion on women’s poetry inevitably includes a French, Simone de Beauvoir, whose The Second Sex alone took the challenge of the prevailing ideology of ‘Kinde, Kuhe und Kirche’ until the 1960s and 1970s, when the need to evolve a female literary tradition was felt. They have come a long way since then and have jumped over the various phases charted by another eminent theorist, Elaine Showalter. From the feminine stage, when they had to use pseudonyms to get published, or the feminist stage, when they needed a platform to dramatise their sufferings, or the female stage, when they declared and acknowledged that they are different and happy being women. Now, they have entered a free stage that is as Showalter adds, “American women writers in the 21 st century can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose.” This poetry coming straight from heart and genuine feelings is convincing and therefore diverse and profound. The best poets are too individualistic to allow their poetry to cling to any one theme or image. They accept what they are and what they feel, and they express that without any mask, with no intention of “telling it slant”.
Adrienne Rich in her essay, Woman and Honour: Some Notes on Lying, says “women have been driven mad, ‘gas lighted’, for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds have been mystified to us”:
The tragedy of sex/ lies around us.
Now, with honesty, courage and willingness, they reveal the most intimate aspects of their life. Blunt and colloquial, they criticise themselves for various forms of hypocrisy. My Story of Kamala Das with its honesty to reveal the most intimate aspects of her life marks a turning point in the history of modern Indian writing. She is courageous enough to have refused the conventional role of Indian wife: “My life had been planned and its course charted by my parents and relatives. I was to be the victim of a young man’s carnal hunger and perhaps, out of our union, there would be born a few children. I would be a middleclass housewife, and walk along the vegetable shop carrying a string bag….I would wash my husband’s cheap underwear and hang it out to dry in the balcony like some kind of a national flag and wifely pride.” Anne Sexton, an American and Pulitzer prize winner too could not lead the conventional life for long because of the intense pressure from the inside: “All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children….I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.” She writes much more fiercely than any poet in our time about her physical and mental bliss. And this points to another very significant aspect of women’s poetry that they are glad to be women.
Their poems show the joy and difficulty, their struggle with housekeeping and recurrent dreams of loveliness. Mona Van Duyn confesses: “I find myself most interested in the self-definitions which occur in the ‘home-base from which we go out into work, war, politics and conquest of nature and to which we inevitably and constantly return.” Sylvia Plath was visited by an almost hallucinating creative force towards the end of her life and in an unpublished typed manuscript she writes that these poems “were written at about four in the morning, before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman settling his bottles.”
Adrienne Rich tells of a similar experience with her famous poem, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law, which took two years to complete: “The poem was jotted in fragments during children’s naps, brief hours in library or at 3.00 AM after rising with a wakeful child.” And she feels overjoyed because she was able to write, for the first time “directly about experiencing myself as a woman.” Revolving around imaginative and mundane, female poetry is a beautiful blend of gross and subtle. She is happy mending the bicycle of her son and still thinks “she can warn the stars.”
Kitchen chores and writing poetry both are taken as part of their fertility enjoyed by them:
“Salt the metaphors. Set them breast up over the vegetables & baste them with the juice in the casserole. Lay a piece of aluminum foil over the poem, cover the casserole & heat it on top of the stove until you hear the images sizzling. Then place the poem in the middle rack in the preheated oven….”(Ars Poetica)
The gastronomical and the poetic flavor are fogging up the male conventions and bringing in a fresh, maddening fragrance in the arena of women’s literature till now covered with frozen landscapes and fiery hearths created by their suppressed identities: “Poetry,” Jong believed, “had been an elitist upper-class men’s club long enough. It was high time to welcome in the people who prepared the food!”
Their latest attack is on the ancient myths: they examine themselves and their place in relation to their past anew. Well-armed with their womanly weapons women are revisiting the ancient myths which they think are like readymade grids prepared in advance by men:
I cannot go on
sharing his nightmares
My own are becoming clearer, they open
which looks like a village lit with blood
where all the fathers are crying: My son is mime
They challenge the male ego by refusing to accept their superiority. Jane Harrison question, “Why a woman is a dream and a terror to a man and not the other way round?” dislodges the romantic myth making tradition. If Adrienne Rich thinks the charisma of man to come purely from his power over woman and his control of the world by force and not from anything fertile and life giving in him, Margaret Atwood wonders how the “boring song” of Sirens “works every time” and forces men to leap ‘overboard in squadrons’? The sirens are tired of singing and don’t enjoy anymore on the island. Poet Alta’s changes the submissive image of Euridice, who till now was seen only as the tragic object of her singer husband Orpheus’ love:
all the male poets write of Orpheus
to find me walking patiently
behind them, they claim I fell into hell
damn them, I say
i stand in my own pain
& sing my own song.
Jean Arasanayagam‘s Medusa with writhing locks “knotted with tangled reptiles,” laughs and tells menfolk that these are tame snakes:
It is your own fear, not fear of me
That turns you into rock
This act of revision gives a different angle to the archetypes and the existing images and this is how by deconstructing the old myths they are reconstructing a women’s literary tradition. They present an image of their new self- -confident and strong enough to kick the male fantasy:
I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission
~ Nikki Giovanni
Male and female, as Kate Millett points out, in many ways represent separate cultures. This difference, however, is read to mean inferior for centuries. Critics have charged that female poets express no sense of ‘cosmic optimism’. If they are not expressing cosmic visions they have been writing directly of their inner world, a world definitely vaster than can be imagined. Beauty of nature, art of love, strategies of politics, world of dreams and mystifying myths are the materials of their poetry. They see in poetry ‘a possibility’ of expressing themselves in myriad and in many interesting ways their pent up voices gagged for so long with an élan and present the interconnected realities of personality and culture without distorting the facts of either their personality or culture. They assess the destiny of women in a ritualistic power –structured society with the ‘will to change’ its complex value system:
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
we are learning to make fire
~ Margaret Atwood
Photos from the internet.
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Alka Nigam is a retired professor of Banaras Hindu University.